Excerpt: Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States

Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States by Amy Den Ouden and Jean M. O'Brien[This article is crossposted at firspeoplesnewdirections.org.]

In Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States, scholars Amy Den Ouden and Jean M. O’Brien have edited a critical new collection of essays that shed light on the complex issues surrounding federal and state recognition for Native American tribal nations in the United States. In this excerpt from the introduction, the editors examine the multifaceted benefits, critiques, and challenges that have accompanied federal recognition for the Mashantucket Pequot, especially after their construction of the world’s largest casino complex. Like other contributions to this collection, the Mashantucket Pequot example demonstrates the complex issues that accompany federal recognition, especially when situated in the broader legal, economic, and racialized terrain of the United States.


In New England [ . . . ] the myth of Indian disappearance that was generated in the colonial period was reinvigorated in the late twentieth century as tribal nations seeking acknowledgment from the U.S. federal government garnered unprecedented media attention, as did several newly recognized tribal nations that launched hugely successful gaming operations after their federal recognition was secured. Then, as now, the native peoples of New England have faced the charge that they are not “real Indians” and are thus undeserving of recognition by the U.S. government.[1]

As explained by Renee Ann Cramer, a leading scholar on federal acknowledgment and racialized reactions to it, the Mashantucket Pequot tribal nation’s federal recognition by an act of Congress in 1983 and their creation of what is now the largest casino complex in the world, Foxwoods Resort Casino, elicited “intense scrutiny and controversy.” Not only has their casino “been a political hot potato” since the mid-1990s, but their identity as Indian people has been subjected to relentless assaults as well.[2]

Fomenting in public reactions to the Mashantuckets’ casino and in the context of rancorous debates that erupted over other tribal acknowledgment cases in Connecticut at the time, the racist stereotype of the “casino Indian” took hold in the region and has had an increasingly negative impact on public attitudes toward federal recognition.[3] As Cramer argues in a recent essay, a new anti-Indian racism that is “fueled by casino success” has transformed “Pequot” into “a trope for everything a ‘real’ Indian is not,” and the backlash against the Mashantuckets’ economic success—and against Indian gaming more generally—“has turned into a backlash against tribal recognition.”[4]

Thus, the “Connecticut effect” offers an important introductory example of the complexity and contentiousness of recognition and of the way in which it is enmeshed with wider U.S. economic and sociopolitical concerns. Racism and its impact on the rights and futures of indigenous peoples is certainly one of those wider concerns. In the Mashantucket Pequot case, we are compelled to consider how racial assumptions about Indian identity have shaped public assessments of the right to federal recognition.[5] Likewise, we must question how the anti-Indian racism Cramer describes has hampered possibilities for expanding public knowledge of the specific histories of the native peoples in Connecticut, deflecting questions about the historical foundation of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century federal acknowledgment efforts and the long history of tribal-state relationships.[6]

In spite of what Mark Edwin Miller aptly terms the “deluge of press coverage” that has rendered the Mashantucket Pequots “the dominant face of recently acknowledged Indian tribes in the United States,” what does the public know about the Mashantuckets’ pre-twentieth-century history as a state-recognized tribal nation?[7] Or about the state recognition of other tribal nations in Connecticut? A recent Connecticut Post editorial, “As Wealth Looms, Recognition Fades,” makes a point rarely addressed in the local media: Despite all the public attention to the issue of tribal gaming in the state and the uproar over the federal recognition efforts of the Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, and Golden Hill Paugussett tribal nations, Connecticut’s long relationship with the indigenous peoples within its borders—evidenced in its own statutes and laws dating back to the colonial period—appears to be ignored. “You could look it up,” the editorial chides.[8]

More than just tribal nations’ historical relationships with the state have been obscured in the anti-Indian/anticasino discourse that has flourished in the region since the opening of the Mashantucket Pequot casino. Also overlooked is a central question that would help a public audience better understand what is at stake for tribal nations and communities that seek recognition: What choices are available for native peoples in the United States today as they contend with problems of unemployment and lack of adequate access to health care, housing, and education?

As Algonquin scholar Paula Sherman has phrased it in a recent analysis of the Mashantuckets’ struggle for sovereignty and the political and social costs of gaming, “What is required to make sustainable Native communities in the twenty-first century?” Casinos, Sherman contends, have become “the most important tool Native people have today for national renewal”: Mashantucket Pequot “dreams of community revitalization only happened through the adoption of gaming.”[9] Nonetheless, Sherman emphasizes that native people have serious concerns and disagreements about whether gaming is an economically sustainable and culturally appropriate means of indigenous nation building.[10] And as anthropologist Jessica R. Cattelino has argued, a persisting colonial mentality in the United States expects “real Indians” to be poor and casts the economic successes of tribal nations that operate casinos as historical anomalies proving that they have “lost” their “genuine” Indian culture.[11]

Just as federally acknowledged tribal nations seeking to develop viable economies through gaming have been pummeled by racial notions and myths to which they are expected to adhere, so too are they subjected to federal and state legal controls. Federal regulations imposed on Indian gaming in 1988 compel tribal nations to enter into financial agreements with states to operate casinos with slot machines. Gaming thus has created a new way for states to appropriate tribal nations’ resources and potentially to undermine their sovereignty.

After their federal acknowledgment, Mashantucket Pequot tribal leaders agreed to a compact with the State of Connecticut that allowed for the establishment of their casino. The compact requires that the Mashantuckets pay the state 25 percent of their gross annual revenues from casino slot machines. The Mohegan tribe’s government did likewise after it became federally acknowledged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1994, and it also pays the state 25 percent of slot revenues each year. As of 2011, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations have paid the state a combined total of more than 5 billion dollars since the signing of their compacts with the state in 1991 and 1994, respectively.[12]

The enormity of the state’s financial gain as a result of tribal gaming must not be overlooked. As the former dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law, Nell Jessup Newton, remarked during a public forum on federal acknowledgment held in Hartford in 2005, Connecticut “could not balance its budget” without the payments it receives from these two tribal nations.[13] Yet today the Mashantucket Pequots’ tribal government faces a major financial crisis, “struggling under a mountain of 2.3 billion in debt,” as a Connecticut newspaper reports, while dealing internally with concerns about tribal leadership on matters of fiscal policy.[14]

As Sherman points out, whether gaming can be a viable means of asserting and defending tribal sovereignty in the long term remains under debate. What does seem clear, however, is that Mashantucket Pequots’ recognition by the federal government produced new political, cultural, and economic dilemmas as well as important new possibilities for revitalizing and sustaining the tribal nation.


From Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States: A Sourcebook, edited by Amy E. Den Ouden and Jean M. O’Brien. Copyright © 2013 by The University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]See, e.g., Cramer, “Cash, Color, and Colonialism in Connecticut,” in Cash, Color, and Colonialism, 137-62; Amy E. Den Ouden, “‘Race’ and the Denial of Local Histories,” in Beyond Conquest: Native Peoples and the Struggle for History in New England (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 181-208; Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Laurence M. Hauptman, “There Are No Indians East of the Mississippi,” in Tribes and Tribulations: Misconception about American Indians and Their Histories (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 93-108.
  2. [2]Cramer, Cash, Color, and Colonialism, 137.
  3. [3]Seneca legal scholar Robert Porter has argued that the emergence of the rich casino Indian stereotype may elicit “more openly predatory” attitudes toward native peoples from nonnatives in the United States, intensifying what he describes as the “new termination era” of federal Indian policy. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, he contends, is a cornerstone of the U.S. government’s late twentieth-century efforts to undermine tribal sovereignty by giving excessive powers to individual states to appropriate native wealth, with the new justification being that all Indians may now be labeled as rich casino Indians. See Robert Odawi Porter, “American Indians and the New Termination Era,” Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 16 (2007): 474-75.
  4. [4]Renee Ann Cramer, “The Common Sense of Anti-Indian Racism: Reactions to Mashantucket Pequot Success in Gaming and Acknowledgment,” Law and Social Inquiry 31 (2006): 325-26.
  5. [5]The stigma associated with the Euro-American racial category “black Indian” and its application as a term intended to denigrate the Indian identity of particular native communities has had a significant impact on the way in which the public assesses (or is instructed to assess) the history and rights of tribal nations in Connecticut whose membership includes individuals of both Native American and African American ancestry. Golden Hill Paugussetts, for example, were subjected to viciously racist ridicule in a 1993 editorial cartoon in a major Connecticut newspaper, the Hartford Courant, which depicted Paugussetts as frauds and swindlers whose supposed devious character was conveyed as “obvious” in their “black” appearance (see Den Ouden, Beyond Conquest, 201-7). That the long and complex history of relations between Native and African American peoples in the United States remains largely misunderstood or disparaged as wholly destructive of “authentic” Indian identity is a matter taken up in Gabrielle Tayac, ed. IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2009), which documents the impact of entrenched notions of racial purity and the racist practices and governmental policies that have denied the legitimacy of kinship and shared histories of struggle among Native and African American peoples. As Angela A. Gonzales explains, for example, racial categories imposed and normalized by the U.S. Census in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries “pigeonholed [Native Americans and African Americans] into official governmental divisions” that maintained white supremacy and facilitated control of people whose complex and interwoven histories defied the established racial hierarchy in the United States (“Racial Legibility: The Federal Census and the (Trans)Formation of ‘Black’ and ‘Indian’ Identity, 1790-1920,” in IndiVisible, ed. Tayac, 67).
  6. [6]State recognition of the Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan, Eastern or Paucatuck Pequot, Schaghticoke, and Golden Hill Paugussett tribal nations has been described as the “unique legal status” of “five indigenous tribes” whose direct relationships with Connecticut began in the colonial period (Stephen L. Pevar, The Rights of Indians and Tribes [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002], 292). However, as Koenig and Stein discuss in detail in this volume, state recognition is also a political and legal status that has emerged in more recent negotiations between tribal nations and individual states. Legal scholar Matthew L. M. Fletcher argues that “a new and dynamic relationship between states and Indian tribes is growing”: “Many states now recognize Indian tribes as de facto political sovereigns, often in the form of a statement of policy whereby the state agrees to engage Indian tribes in a government-to-government relationship mirroring federal policy” (“Retiring the ‘Deadliest Enemies’ Model of Tribal-State Relations,” Tulsa Law Review 43 [2007]: 75). There is also concern that agreements between tribal nations and individual states may undermine indigenous sovereignty and subordinate it to the sovereignty claimed by states. See, e.g., Jeff Armstrong, “Deadly Embrace: From State Sovereignty to Cooperative Agreements in a Public Law-280 State,” Indigenous Policy Journal 19 (2008), http://indigenouspolicy.org/Articles/VolXIXNo2/DeadlyEmbrace/tabid/154/Default.aspx.
  7. [7]Mark Edwin Miller, Forgotten Tribes, 2.
  8. [8]“As Wealth Looms, Recognition Fades,” Connecticut Post, October 15, 2011.
  9. [9]Paula Sherman, “Gaming and IGRA: A Tool for Self-Determination or Elimination?” Journal of Aboriginal Economic Development 2 (2002): 80-83.
  10. [10]

    See, e.g., Robert B. Porter, who argues that gaming constitutes “auto-colonizing behavior”: “The gaming phenomenon demonstrates just how deeply the Immigrant nation’s economic values have been assimilated by Indigenous peoples. This aggressive pursuit of excess wealth reflects an incorporation of the values underlying the colonizing nation’s economic system” (“Pursuing the Path of Indigenization in the Era of Emergent International Law Governing the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Yale Human Rights and Development Journal 5 [2002]: 149).

  11. [11]Jessica R. Cattelino, “The Double Bind of American Indian Need-Based Sovereignty,” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2010): 248.
  12. [12]This current total amount of revenues accrued from the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos by the state of Connecticut is reported by the New England Gaming Summit (www.newenglandsummit.com). The gaming compacts, along with details regarding casino revenues paid to the state, may be viewed at the website of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, Gaming Division (www.ct.gov/dcp/cwp/view.asp?a=4107&q=480854). A January 2010 report of the Senate Republican Office, “Where Does All the Casino Money Go?,” lends insight into state legislators’ sense of entitlement to the enormous sums extracted from the Mashantuckets and Mohegans since their compacts were signed. Republicans and Democrats squabble over control and allocation of “casino money,” which seems not to be enough to satisfy the state: In 2009 alone, “the state received nearly $378 million in revenue from the casinos. While this is indeed a lot of money it is down considerably from the over $430 million the state received in 2007, certainly a sign of these troubled economic times” (www.senaterepublicans.ct.gov/press/witkos/2010/012010.html).
  13. [13]“Federal Recognition or Flawed System: Pride, Politics, and Connecticut’s Native American Tribes,” public forum hosted by the Connecticut Historical Society and WNPR/Connecticut Public Radio, March 15, 2005. The forum featured presentations by Nell Jessup Newton and three other speakers: Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal; Chief Richard Velky of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Kent, Connecticut; and Nicholas Bellantoni, Connecticut state archaeologist. The forum attracted a large audience and took place at the height of public controversy over the federal acknowledgment of the Eastern Pequot and Schaghticoke tribal nations in 2002 and 2004, respectively. For further discussion of the Eastern Pequot and Schaghticoke federal acknowledgment cases, see the essays in this volume by Torres and Den Ouden (both of whom attended the March 2005 forum).
  14. [14]“Poor Choice for Mashantucket,” New London Day, October 6, 2011. The editorial also notes that both the Mashantuckets’ and Mohegans’ casinos “have suffered losses and been forced to lay off workers in recent years in large part because of a global economic downturn.”